Solar panels have long been credited with being the future of electricity supplies in the UK, with our reliance on fossil fuels finally being limited as a result of the imminent point of no return where the pollution they cause creating a terminal problem for the planet and their supply finally looking to being extinguished. Twenty years or so ago, many didn’t believe the USA would even back down on its ‘gas guzzler’ culture, but in some ways, they’re embracing reforms in their lifestyles ahead of those of us that doubted them in the first place.
Back on home soil, we’ve now had at least half a decade of acceleration in the solar market, driven by a number of perhaps unexpected factors. First of all, European targets have been imposed that mean huge fines if we don’t start to tap into renewable energy. Successive governments made up first of Labour MPs, then their Tory and Lib-Dem coalition counterparts and now the first standalone Conservative government in a generation are keen to create incentives to encourage us to meet those goals.
We’ve seen all sorts of schemes come and go, such as the Energy Companies Obligation and Affordable Warmth which are aimed as the less affluent households, and the Green Deal which helps any home pay for energy saving measures, which include solar panels to generate energy, as they reduce bills and reliance on traditional fossil fuelled energy sources. These ‘official’ programmes, designed to accelerate the uptake of creating domestic energy from the sun’s ray have had mixed results.
There’s also been tremendous momentum for solar energy from the free panel schemes that were run by investors looking for better returns on their money through the recession years. Where banks and even the stock market were failing to provide their normal profit on investments, largely due to the unprecedented low Bank of England base rate stubbornly sitting at half a percentage point, solar was offering very impressive returns indeed, in some cases delivering a two-to-three hundred percent return over a two decade period. This, of course, is a long term investment, tying money up well into the future, but it does provide a regular return through the feed in tariff scheme that has been in operation since 2010. It works by giving participating households free electricity, while the investment company retains the financial incentives for generating the green energy.
This has had the knock on effect of providing work for thousands of tradesmen across the country at a time when they would otherwise have been struggling to find work. As the recession took hold, the major housebuilding companies with putting down tools and operating a skeleton staff while they waited for the economy to recover and get moving again. No-one expected it to take more than a couple of years, let alone the half decade or so that it really lasted. Installing solar panels requires a lot of specialist skills, not put someone to physically put the panels onto the roof. For example, obvious examples include the electricians needed to safely connect the solar energy to the household electrical circuits, or plumbers to adapt the hot water system to allow thermal solar panels to do their job. Where that electrician might have been re-wiring for property developers or the plumber repairing a leaking water pipe in years gone by, the opportunity to move between solar installations has been welcome.
A few years ago, there was a common belief that trades were dying in the UK, yet these technology advances clearly demonstrate that they’ve never been more important. Perhaps it’s true to say that the tradesmen are adapting their skills to move with the times, but that’s not really any different to any other type of job. For example, teachers adapt to a new curriculum, accountants to changes in tax laws and so on.
While some of the government incentives we referred to earlier have now ended, been reduced or are in danger of falling victim to austerity cuts, the upside is that the solar panel prices are falling fast – perhaps even faster than the subsidies. This means that they continue to be a very attractive investment, bot now and over their lifetime. Typically the panels themselves and the income from them is guaranteed for up to 20 years, so compared to other investment opportunities, the risk is as near non-existent as they come.
Now, while the economy is finally finding its feet, there’s no slowdown in the demand for solar panel installations across the country. With penetration currently sitting between two and three percent, there’s no danger of the market becoming saturated. In fact, when you include the labour element of the tradesmen such as the plumbers and electricians we referred to, alongside the availability of the panels and the administration work involved with registering for feed in tariffs, the problem is more likely to be the waiting list growing for home-owners wanting to join the solar revolution, rather than the installers struggling to find work.
So, for the just finished economic downturn, solar technology has saved plenty of jobs, but it may be around long enough to play its part in the next one too – let’s hope its at least a couple of decades away.